Voranai: How to Make Father Proud

A woman holds a portrait of the late King Bhumibol and a child on Thursday in Bangkok.

Voranai VanijakaThe final page turned last night on the 70-year reign of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who was laid to rest in a grand cremation ceremony. The late king had admirers and detractors, but one thing is certain: His impact on the Thai nation was such that our national identity has become tied to him.

He is dubbed “father of the nation.” We believe this land, this Thailand, belongs to the father, and that we the people are his children. Thailand is a multi-ethnic and multicultural patchwork of former petty kingdoms, fiefdoms and a sultanate. We are taught that it is our common reverence for the late king that defines our collective identity as a single, united people – however fragile that unity has been exposed for during the past decades’ political turmoil.

As the nation celebrates his life and mourns his passing, we should now look to the future. Pertinent to that future is that we, his children, need to grow up and be children no more.

And how childish we have been.

Irresponsibly, as spoiled children, throwing tantrums and committing violence when we don’t get what we want. Disagreements break down in episodes of rage, threats, censorship, bans and punishments. Losing leads to rule-breaking, burning and destroying. Military coup d’etats are applauded because we’ve lost faith in freedom, democracy and the rule of law.

It’s time to grow up. One measure of being responsible grownups is the ability to deal with differences and disagreements through intelligence and understanding.

Good children learn from the wisdom of their father; responsible adults live it. The following quote from the late king spoken on Dec. 4, 2005, are words we should live by:

“If you say that the king cannot be criticized, it suggests that the king is not human. … If someone offers criticisms suggesting that the king is wrong, then I would like to be informed of their opinion. If I am not, that could be problematic. … If we hold that the king cannot be criticized or violated, then the king ends up in a difficult situation.”

Since 1908, Thailand’s lese majeste law, Criminal Code Section 112, has made it illegal to defame, insult or threaten the king, queen, heir-apparent or regent. The punishment is three to 15 years imprisonment per count. The law is meant to protect the sanctity of the institution of the monarchy.

But instead, lese majeste has been misused as a political tool to intimidate, silence and jail political dissidents and ordinary citizens. Those who abuse the letter of the law get away with it because the rest of us breathe the air of mistrust and paranoia.

Defamation, insult and threat aside, we become enraged at the thought anyone could be critical of the late king, or the monarchy. Enraged to the point of justifying locking someone up for 15 years or longer. Enraged to the point of supporting dictatorship over democracy.

Be that as it may, the law is the law, and as responsible citizens we should respect it, even if we disagree with it. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t – or can’t – voice disagreement and work toward amending the law.

Today, Thailand is a nation ruled by fear. We dare not speak, write, post, discuss, debate or disagree for fear of a range of punishments – from becoming a victim of a social witch hunt or government detention to suffering those years in prison ourselves.

During the past year, in celebrating the late king’s life, numerous quotes and speeches attributed to him have been published. All of them echo the late king’s character: He was a man of intelligence and compassion, not hate and vengeance. He spent his life uniting the people, not tearing us apart. In his own words, he wanted us to be critical, not cowed in fear.

Why then do we not follow his example?

There will always be those who abuse the law for political or material gain. Those who corrupt the minds of others for personal interest. Those who rob from the land for their own purses. Those who trample on human rights and liberties to steal power.

They only get away with it because the rest of us sit by as unaccountable children. We let them. We remain silent due to fear. At times we even cheer them on, because factionalism blinds our judgement. The abuse of the lese majeste law. The detention cells. The banning and censoring. The hate, rage and witch-hunting. This is not how we honor the father of the nation.

The past is for us to learn from; the future is for us to build upon. Today we live in a society ruled by fear and paranoia; tomorrow we must build a society that is open and free. Pertinent to that future is not only that we need to grow up, but also that we should want better things for our own children.

This should be how we honor the legacy of the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej.

Ed. note: Khaosod English is delighted to welcome Voranai Vanijaka as a regular columnist. Now editor-in-chief of GQ Magazine Thailand, Voranai is a former weekly newspaper columnist famous for his political and cultural commentary.